“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).
Today we enter into the Advent Season. As the saying goes, “It is later than you think…”
One of my strongest, most enduring memories from childhood is the time spent getting ready for Christmas.
We did not have any family traditions involving the Advent Wreath or the Jesse Tree. And most certainly, like all the other children I knew, the desire for and anticipation of receiving presents, particularly toys, comprised a major part of the excitement in the run-up to Christmas morning. Each year brought a new toy I wanted, but I can only recall four examples – the toy Gulf gas station at age 4, the red fire truck at age 5, the model train at age 6, the model race cars and track at age 9. Like many, the anticipation for the gift was often more satisfying than the gift itself. That is true whether one is young or old, if the gift is of this world. We have all seen the child who was more enamored by the wrapping and the box than the gift the box contained.
So, if year after year, the gifts I wanted were not that special, what was it that was so special about the season that provided me with fond memories?
Simply this—for a few weeks each year, my family came together for a joyful purpose that set a time apart from the rest of the year. And the symbols that stick most prominently in my memory are the nativity scene under the tree and the angel that sat atop the tree. Everything important and lasting that we did as a family was directed to the glad tidings of the angel who would announce to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.” A child was born… the Child of all children… the King of kings.
But not yet—although the Christ-child was born in history, nearly 2,000 years previously at the time of my childhood, His coming in my time at our annual Christmas celebration was still days and weeks away. When the nativity scene was first brought out and placed beneath the tree each year, the manger would remain empty until Christmas morning, sometime before I awoke, when the Christ-child would mark His arrival and appear in the manger.
The anticipation of His imminent arrival was heightened in my mind by the activities and lessons presented by the good sisters at school and by my parents who handed on the faith so well. These memories of the reason for the season remained with me, more so than the toys that never quite satisfied, even in my later years when Jesus was less central to my life than He is now. You see, the time we spent each year during Advent, preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, served to remind me during the remainder of the year of that great gift of our Savior who brings so much lasting consolation and joy. And looking back, it has served as a reminder to me down through the years too.
Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).
If we lose our focus on the Lord, neither his coming in past history, nor his coming at the end of time will have much meaning for us. We will be like the people of Noah’s time who, “In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away” (Matthew 24:38-39).
Advent is a season of true longing and preparation for the only one who truly satisfies. We recall his coming to us in Bethlehem; we prepare for our celebration in our time of His nativity; we gird ourselves to be faithful and vigilant watchmen of His coming at the end of history.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul writes, “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).
St. Paul also reminds us, “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from your sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:11-12).
We should allow this clarion call from this great saint to reverberate in our souls.
As I begin my own preparations this Advent, I need to ask myself, “Am I awake, or am I like the people in Noah’s time, so consumed with the affairs of this world that I have lost my focus on the Lord?” Again, Jesus warns us—He says, “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44).
It is for this purpose that the Church gives us the Season of Advent. It is not a time to become distracted to the point of anxiety with excessive shopping and parties that have little to do with the celebration of the Lord’s coming. It is a time for our personal spiritual growth. How many of us would agree that far too many Advent and Christmas seasons have come and gone too quickly because our hearts and minds are captured by the secular interests of the season instead of the spiritual?
Practical Advent Resolutions
This year, I have made a list of resolutions here at the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year instead of at the start of our upcoming, new calendar year. Maybe you will find something helpful among them as you too enter into Advent 2014.
I will begin this Advent by taking stock of my spiritual life. Is my spiritual life—my life of prayer—more advanced at the start of this Advent than it was at the start of last Advent? Is my relationship with Jesus deeper and am I more committed to Him this year than I was last year? If not, why not? Here I will look at the good and the bad and strive to replace bad habits with holy habits.
I will begin each day with gratitude to Jesus for seeing me safely through the night and granting me another day to learn to love Him as He loves me. I will adjust my schedule so that I can express my worship of God at daily Mass. On those days when I am unable to do this, I will add a Rosary to my daily prayer or a period of meditation on the day’s Mass readings.
My daily prayer will include the desire that the example of all that Jesus has given to me will lead me to give to others in need out of the excess with which I have been blessed… and that the gifts I give to my loved ones will be appropriate and informed by His love.
Most of all, I will pray each day for the salvation of all whom I love and all who God places in my life—and that will include a prayer for my own salvation and my example to others—that this season of Advent will be a time of awaking from spiritual sleep as I await the coming of the Lord.
And remember… Jesus is the one gift for which the receiving is greater than the anticipation!
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Into the deep…
Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and appears each Sunday.
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.
He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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